Tuesday, November 19
REVIEW: Big Sur
Directed by Michael Polish
2013 Biographical Drama
1 hour 21 minutes
From 3311 Productions and
When I hear that a film is going to open and then realize it is not going to anywhere near me, I long to live again in Los Angeles, where you never have to wait for a film, except for waiting in a long line. Sitting in my easy chair and thinking just these things, I decided to check my cable listings and see if Big Sur was playing on what is called same day as theaters. It is often the case with little films... and damn, there it was.
Having it on cable does indeed differ from the theaters because one can watch it several times, if one is given to doing that... and I am. So I have now watched it three times and I gotta tell you... I changed my star rating from three to four. This is just a gem of a little film, a biographical moment from the life of one of my top three favorite writers ever, literary iconoclast, king of the beat generation, Jack Kerouac.
The film is based on one of Kerouac's novels and deals with a short period of time that he spent in Northern California, a few years after the publication of his most famous work, On the Road. He said that for the years after its publication he was surrounded and outnumbered by telegrams, phone calls, mail, requests, visitors, snoopers and reporters. When he felt it was all driving him to madness, he fled to California. (Gee, I left California for the same reason, but that's another posting.)
With the hope of grappling with some of his demons, he landed in San Francisco and stayed in a flop house in North Beach. But he continued doing what he usually did... drink and sleep. Hardly the prescription for shaking the blues, he began listening to some of his friends... novelists, poets, serious followers of Zen-Buddhism... and in short order poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti suggested Kerouac take advantage of a little cabin he owned in the Bixby Canyon area of Big Sur.
Ah, quiet and solitude and still plenty of liquor. Essentially, the film is about Kerouac's three separate stays at the cabin mixed with return visits to San Francisco. During the first of those visits, he said that he was bored after three days and crazed at three weeks. He did attempt some writing but he was growing weary of that as well. Ultimately he would need to return to the city for refueling with spirits and friendship.
Living in the general area was his longtime friend, Neal Cassady and Neal's wife Carolyn, whom Jack knew very well. Jack was wallowing in self-pity because he felt jaded and washed-up and much as the two men cared for one another, neither was ever able to help the other one over the hump. Neal had a mistress named Billie and when he introduced her to Jack, they became lovers and only broke up because Jack wouldn't marry her.
Jack would bring the Cassadys and other pals with him to the cabin and the film provides some brilliant little insights into how these people were, thought, acted. Still, he continued to drink himself into oblivion, suffering frequently with a case of the DTs. He and a number of his pals walked around slugging on bottles of booze around a fire, musing about writing and the ordinary people in their worlds. Kerouac could be found during the night sprawled across a mattress on the floor, fully dressed, frequently with only his head on the mattress and the rest of him on a hardwood floor.
He had moments of serenity in the woods of Big Sur but toward the end of his stay, at the time he was trying to distance himself from Billie, he felt an unbearable anguish of insanity. He ranted and raved, looking mad, suffering from some sort of hallucinatory breakdown. Suddenly, shortly before leaving, he recovered, resplendent in the hope that life would be good to him and he to it. A golden wash of goodness spread over (him), he would say.
Out of the framework of the film, Kerouac would return to the East Coast where he would continue to live life as he had always known it... big ups and downs. He was likely a strong case for bipolar, although far before that term came into being. Both he and Cassady would be dead before the end of the decade (the 60s), Kerouac from internal bleeding due to longterm drinking. He was 47 years old.
I hope there is a bounty of gifts coming to cinematographer M. David Mullen and writer-director Michael Polish (who's a fine actor as well and now the husband of star Kate Bosworth). The film is not only beautifully written but beautifully filmed. The many shots of the sea and the Big Sur woods are as breathtaking as you would imagine they would be. What may be offputting to some (but not at all to me) is the constant narration. There are some scenes between Jack and others where, instead of hearing what they are saying, we see their mouths moving while Jack narrates. I didn't mind it because, by and large, they were Jack's own words and I hung on every one of them.
I had never heard of Jean-Marc Barr but he was exquisite as Jack Kerouac. He obviously did his homework, capturing the many nuances that made up the writer. Barr also managed to look a great deal like him at that stage of he life. I say ditto to Josh Lucas as Neal Cassady. I bought every bit of it. And as his wife, Carolyn, Radha Mitchell also shines. Not a beat (get it... beat) was missed by any of the other actors. (Carolyn Cassady, the real one, just died in September. Check out the link if compelled.)
As a lover of biographies this was close to the head of the list. Imperfect as he was, I was immensely drawn to Jack Kerouac, his writing, his friends, his thinking, his time. (I felt much the same about the American expatriate writers living in Europe during the 1920s.)
I was also pretty wild about the film, On the Road, and know there is much more to be drawn from this man's short life. I hope there will be more films on this treasured writer and troubled soul.
Shane, Come Back